A nod to norms on protecting the innocent

A groundbreaking verdict against a French company for aiding terrorists fits a wider trend reaffirming law protecting civilians.

U.S. Attorney Breon Peace speaks in New York Oct. 18 about French cement maker Lafarge pleading guilty to a charge of making payments to terrorist groups, including Islamic State.

In a New York courtroom on Tuesday, the United States presented a cautionary tale for companies tempted to do business with mass abusers of civilians. It was able to force a French company, Lafarge, to plead guilty to paying two terrorist groups, Islamic State and Nusra Front, to keep its cement operations running nearly a decade ago when those groups occupied parts of Syria.

The criminal plea agreement, which came with a $778 million fine, was the first time a corporation faced a charge of aiding a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. According to emails sent by Lafarge executives, the company, now owned by a Swiss parent company, was paying the terrorist groups in hopes of gaining a competitive advantage once the war in Syria ended.

The case, along with parallel legal proceedings in France, sets an important precedent for the use of law to reinforce global norms aimed at protecting the innocence of people living in conflict zones or under the harsh rule of a dictatorship. More international corporations may now take better heed to honor human-rights laws as part of their daily business.

Such laws are increasing as a tool to address humanitarian concerns about people being abused in other countries. The U.S., for example, has begun to enforce a 2021 law aimed at preventing American companies from buying goods from China, such as cotton, made by forced labor in regions where Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities live.

In Germany, a law taking effect in 2023 will require companies to ensure that their supply chains are clean of forced labor, child labor, and discrimination. Many Western companies have left Russia since February after its invasion of Ukraine in order to avoid sanctions set against Russia.

A decade has passed since the United Nations adopted a set of “guiding principles” on business compliance with human rights laws. Since then, notes Ekaterina Aristova, a postdoctoral fellow at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at Oxford University, there has been “growing momentum worldwide, especially in Europe, towards improving corporate human rights performance.” But that diligence remains more mandatory than voluntary, she wrote in an Oxford blog.

The legal victory against Lafarge’s complicity with terrorist groups sends a needed message about the universal nature of humanitarian laws, especially those aimed at protecting civilians. From legislatures to corporate boardrooms, honoring the innocent is a global responsibility.

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